Elementary students benefit from discourse knowledge on writing

Even as early as grade 2 and grade 4, students’ knowledge about the elements of good writing predicted the quality of stories they wrote, reports a study in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Participants were 32 2nd-graders and 32 4th-graders from 13 classrooms in 4 schools in a large urban district in the southeastern U.S. Researchers surveyed the students for their discourse knowledge on writing with 6 open-ended questions. (Suppose you were asked to be the teacher of your class today and one of the other kids asked you–What is good writing? What would you tell that student about good writing? Why do you think some kids have trouble with writing; what makes writing hard for them? What do good writers do when they write? etc.) Interviews were scored by research assistants.

“Practically, the findings from this study provide support to educators who contend that acquisition of knowledge about writing should be an integral part of writing instruction,” the researchers write.

Researchers examined if 5 types of discourse knowledge about writing affected story quality. The 5 types of discourse knowledge were:

  1. Substantive processes (role of process in good writing and carrying out the writing process)
  2. Production procedures (role of linguistic and mechanical factors in good writing, story writing, and carrying out the writing process
  3. Motivation (role of effort in good writing and carrying out the writing process
  4. Story elements (basic structural elements in a story)
  5. Irrelevant information.

Students each wrote a story in response to one of 3 line drawings that served as prompts. Students were told they needed to plan their story before writing it. They were given 15 minutes to write the story and 5 minutes to plan it. Students’ stories were assessed based on 3 traits: organization, development of plot, characters, and setting and creativity. Stories were also measured for story lengths and for vocabulary diversity.

Participating 2nd-grade students and 4th-grade students were compared in their attitudes to writing, discourse knowledge and on the plans they had written for their stories.  The 2nd-grade students had more positive attitudes toward writing, but the quality of the written plans did not improve from 2nd grade to 4th grade. The 4th-graders did not have more knowledge about the characteristics of a story but they did have greater knowledge about how to write (e.g. role of motivation) and about the characteristics of good writing, the researchers report.

“The Relationship Between the Discourse Knowledge and the Writing Performance of Elementary-Grade Students,” by Natalie Olinghouse and Steve Graham, Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 101, Number 1, 2009, pps. 37-50.

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